Happiness

It is the middle of summer, the heart of the watermelon, and I’m sitting on a patio looking out at hills and cypress trees and listening to people splashing in a pool I’ll swim in later on. There are people in that pool murmuring in languages I don’t speak, but I can tell they’re happy. So am I–it would take an act of will not to be.

How does happiness happen? How does it happen to me? Do I need a pool and a patio and a white butterfly and just the right combination of breeze and Italian to strum the strings of my soul’s harp? Surely not! Maybe not. Um ….

Happiness comes and goes, and that’s OK with me. To poach a phrase from Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning,” I have no desire to live in a paradise where ripe fruit never falls. Happiness can and should be pursued, but sometimes the pursuit feels like an endless game of tag with Usain Bolt. On days like that, it’s better to leave Usain alone and just do your work, whatever that might be. If you don’t have any work, find some: mow the grass, change the litter box. Floss, whatever.

Often happiness is a remedy, a balm, a way out. And the balm, the escapism of it, can become a problem if you fixate on it. As a longtime student of the Beat Generation authors, many of whom played around endlessly with heroin and cocaine and blah, Benzedrine, blah, I’ve always prided myself on my complete disinterest in narcotics. Chocolate and/or wine will almost always suffice on good days and bad, thank you very much. But when I landed in the ER back in February, I was happy to make the acquaintance of morphine. I remember our one-night stand with great fondness. But: never again, if I can help it.

Happiness can bring tears, as it did two days ago when I stood at just the right place in the Uffizi Gallery and looked at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and then at his Spring. There were hoards of tourists milling around me, but it was my moment nonetheless. I felt very large and very small at the same time. Maybe what happened to me in the Uffizi was not exactly the onset of happiness; maybe it was the pure joy of being human. And that is pretty damned good.

There was a time when doctors prescribed travel to people feeling melancholy. Why don’t they do that anymore? Why don’t they say, “Go on a trip, you slug-a-bed. Go to a museum in some place you’ve never been.” Even a trip to the next town over can pump up the dopamine. Or, if you are really, really depressed and unable to go far, take a stroll down the familiar aisles of Food Lion–or your own, fall-back supermarket. Just go.

In any case, here we all are–alive and breathing the air that inspirited saints and geniuses and rotten criminals and cats and dogs and rats for more centuries than I care to count. We must make something of this air, this day! If you hear a splash, that’s me!

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La Primavera (Spring) by Sandro Botticelli

Beat Poet Harold Norse: An Interview with Todd Swindell

During times of upheaval, art of all kinds can offer solace and refuge. As an antidote to the horrors we are all grappling with these days, I recommend to you the life and writing of Harold Norse (1916-2009),  an out gay man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, his centennial year, let’s have a look at who he was and what he was all about.

The Brooklyn native was a smart, sexy guy with a winning smile. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1938 and later earned an M.A. from New York University. His elegant lyric poems received high praise from William Carlos Williams, who called him the best poet of his generation. First in Europe and then in San Francisco, Norse found his milieu among the Beat writers. His numerous books of poetry, his experimental novel, The Beat Hotel, and his memoir were published by both mainstream and small presses beginning in 1953.

Here’s Norse writing in Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (Morrow, 1989) about a letter he received from W.H. Auden:

Wystan had repeatedly said, and had written in a letter to me, ‘Live every moment as if it were thy last,’ quoting an Anglican hymn he had sung in childhood. And although the context of this line was religious, I could believe the thought without the religion. There was no other way to live. Certainly not if you were in your twenties and the most devastating war in history had just ended. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky the government did not have room in its military machine for young men designated 4-F because of ‘feminine reactions.’

But Norse did fight during World War II–in New York City. One day on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, he encountered a drunk beating up a peddler and hollering anti-Semitic epithets:

Nobody made a move to help the old man. The crowd’s passiveness and the helplessness of the old peddler at a time when millions of innocent Jews were being terminated in the gas chambers of Europe proved too much for me. I pushed my way forward through the throng and hovered a moment indecisively. Then, almost without my knowing it, my fist shot out of the crowd and the drunk went down, flat on his back, his head thudding on the asphalt. A cheer rose from the crowd, which began to disperse, many thanking me warmly, shaking my hand.

Norse was a man of many talents. In the late 1950s he arrived in  Paris and soon began experimenting with cut-up writing, a technique that William Burroughs made famous. Norse was also painting:

I had begun painting at a suggestion from Julia Laurin. I threw colored Pelican inks at random on Bristol paper and washed them off in the bidet with startling results: a series of maplike drawings of outer and inner space in the most vivid colors and minutely precise details, as if they had been meticulously drawn by a master hand. Yet my hand never touched them. I allowed everything to happen, letting the laws of chance take over, acting as a medium through whom these colors, shapes, and designs would flow, dictated by whatever forces reside in the unconscious. With the feeling that I was charting new territory in the visual arts I worked compulsively, calling the results ‘Cosmographs’–cosmic writings. I was no draftsman, but I was an artist. When I showed them to Burroughs [… ] he was so enthusiastic that he wrote the introduction to my first one-man show, which opened a year later in March 1961 at the English Bookshop, 42, rue de Seine.

These are just a few glimpses of Norse, someone I knew little about until I became friends with Todd and Tate Swindell of San Francisco. The Swindell brothers have done a great deal to promote Norse and other San Francisco Beats who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

A writer and activist, Todd Swindell had admired Norse’s poetry for a long time before he began helping Norse around the house near the end of the poet’s life. After Norse died, Todd compiled his archives. He also took on the enormous task of editing I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: The Selected Poems of Harold Norse (Talisman House, 2014). Later this month, he will be presenting a talk, “Cut Out of the Cut Ups: Harold Norse at the Beat Hotel,” at the European Beat Studies Conference in Manchester, England. In July, Todd and Tate Swindell will host and participate in a series of discussion panels commemorating the centennial of Norse’s birth. For more info on these panels (two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles), go to the Events page at haroldnorse.com.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Swindell by email. Here’s what he had to say about his old friend Harold Norse.

What does Harold Norse add to the Beat Movement? 

Harold adds a strong connection to Modernism to the Beat Movement. He was publishing in magazines like Poetry in the 1940s. When W.H. Auden arrived in the States, Harold was among the first Americans to connect with him, and he became Auden’s secretary. Harold also got to know Anaïs Nin, Dylan Thomas, and James Baldwin.

Without Harold, the Beats would not have such a rich international dimension. He lived in Paris in the late 1950s and traveled widely. We read often of New York City and San Francisco, but a great deal of the Beats’ influence came out of what happened in Paris, Tangier, and the Greek Islands, and Harold was part of that scene. Nor would we have had Harold’s magazine Bastard Angel, from the early 1970s, publishing a new generation of writers such as Andrei Codrescu and Neeli Cherkovski in the same pages as Bob Kaufman and Diane di Prima.

Where was Harold living when he was editing and producing Bastard Angel, and how long did it last? Where is it archived?

Bastard Angel magazine began shortly after Harold moved to San Francisco in 1971, inspired by the city’s poetry scene and its mixture of younger and older poets. Issue #3, the last one, came out in the fall of 1974. The mock-ups and other production material are archived at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Harold sold them a part of his archives in the early 1980s. Most of his papers are housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

How did Harold get along with Allen Ginsberg? Did they have much contact?

Harold met Allen in the winter of 1944, a week before Ginsberg met Kerouac. It was on a subway train, very early in the morning heading to Greenwich Village, when Allen entered the empty car wearing a red bandana around his neck, taking a seat opposite Harold. When the train’s rumble would quiet at each stop, Harold could hear the 18-year-old mumbling to himself while his head bobbed as if he were in a trance. Eventually he recognized “The Drunken Boat” being recited in French. “Rimbaud!” Harold shouted. “You’re a poet!” Allen replied. They went back to Harold’s apartment on Horatio Street and compared poems. The pair would have likely met later at parties or bars in the Village, but they were acquaintances more than friends, similar to Harold’s connection with Frank O’Hara.

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Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse (photo by Gerard Malanga, 1973)

There was a subtle rivalry between Norse and Ginsberg. In Harold’s Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, he mentions the time Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky arrived in Paris in 1961 on their way to India. At a party filled with champagne and hashish, Peter pestered Harold to disrobe. After swigging and toking, he complied, but then Peter disappeared into the bathroom. Eventually most of the guests ended up in their birthday suits, as Allen sternly guarded the bathroom door. The whole story is well worth reading.

When I was gathering Harold’s archives, I found correspondence to Allen asking him for a letter of recommendation. Harold was trying to obtain a paid teaching position. Ginsberg replied he didn’t have time to comply and ultimately such a letter would not make a difference. In his defense, Ginsberg was inundated with such requests.

In Harold’s archives at Indiana University, there is a series of photographs by Gerard Malanga taken in 1973 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Allen and Harold were both in attendance wearing the colorful hippie garb of the day. You can see their bright smiles. As you know, Ginsberg was a talented photographer and he photographed Harold in the kitchen of his Mission District apartment in 1988. It is one of the most beautiful photos taken of Harold.

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Photo by Allen Ginsberg, 1988

Did Harold have a workaday job, or was he able to earn a living as a writer? 

Harold’s paid employment varied throughout his life. In New York City, he taught at colleges like Cooper Union. When he left for Italy in ’53, his finances were very strained. At first he worked dubbing English films into Italian and then taught English, on and off, for a couple years. During his years abroad, Harold was supported by a couple of patrons who were from wealthy families but lived frugally. This support was usually a vacant apartment or money for food—but only the bare necessities.

When Harold repatriated to California in 1969, he tried to obtain a regular teaching position but was systematically rejected by petty professors jealous of his time abroad. There was an image projected of Harold being too wild because of his poetry. In the 1980s he had some stints at a college in San Jose and at San Francisco’s New College. Harold scraped by his whole life, but of course he’d been doing that since he was a child. His parents were always leaving furnished rooms under cloak of night because they couldn’t pay the rent.

I read that he rearranged the letters in his surname, Rosen, to come up with Norse. Why did he do that? What was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage?

Like his hairpiece, Harold’s name change was something he never spoke of. According to his memoirs, Harold’s new name came from childhood readings in Norse mythology and because his mother’s family were Nordic Jews, blue-eyed blondes from Lithuania. Though his mother was suspicious of religions (and people), her siblings converted when they married spouses who were Catholic.

Harold embraced his Jewish heritage when the Nazis rose to power. Also, he saw how prejudice arose from baseless stereotypes whether it was blacks, queers, or Jews. For instance, Harold—muscular, hairy, butch—was never suspected of being queer. His swarthy complexion and upturned nose could have him pegged as anything from Italian to English to German.

What are some of the poems you especially admire in I Am Going to Fly Through Glass?

A selection of my favorite poems can change from day-to-day. For now…“Piccolo Paradiso” is a love poem for the ages. “Believing in the Absurd” is a snapshot of Harold’s time at the Beat Hotel. “California Will Sink” is a prophetic lamentation about global warming. “Remembering Paul Goodman” encapsulates the queer poetic geniuses of 1940’s Manhattan. “Let Go and Feel Your Nakedness” merges the lusty odes of Catullus with the liberating playfulness of James Broughton.

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What were some of the challenges of compiling and editing this edition of selected poems?

 My original idea was to photocopy a chapbook of Harold’s poetry and circulate it amongst friends, a stoking of the fire, as it were. I’d self-published a memorial chapbook of poetry from Harold’s friends like Ira Cohen, Mel Clay and Eddie Woods after he died in 2009. (Readers can email me at poet@haroldnorse.com to purchase a copy.) It wasn’t until Neeli Cherkovski suggested a full-length collection that I set my sights higher, which meant going back and reading all the poems again.

The 2003 edition of Harold’s collected poems is comprehensive but poorly organized and needlessly repetitive. I wanted to illustrate the development of Harold’s poetic voice, mirrored by his world travels. Including photographs from Harold’s archives accented this progression. Neeli contributed a brilliant introductory essay that motivated me to include additional poems.

It was hard not to give up when publishers repeatedly turned down the manuscript. I was on the verge of self-publishing when Ed Foster from Talisman House came in with a wonderful offer to print 700 copies­—considerably larger than the usual small-press poetry print runs.

Tell me a story about Harold Norse that only you would know.

Harold’s last years living alone in his cottage apartment in San Francisco were fraught with loneliness, compounded by lack of restful sleep. Though social by nature, he had become increasingly isolated. There was an element within his psyche which could often sabotage an opportunity.

Many folks who knew Harold longer than I have remarked on how he would perpetually kvetch about his work not being recognized. I was in my twenties when we first met and naively unaware of Harold’s role in that situation. I could only be supportive and enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, the value of his work obviated Harold’s shortcomings.

One day, venting his woes, Harold expressed concern that he sounded paranoid. His complaint wasn’t specific to his poetry not getting the attention it deserved but more about the difficulty of not getting enough sleep and lacking money and companionship. The day before, I had been reading his City Lights collection Hotel Nirvana, which contains the poem “These Fears Are Real Not Paranoid.” I blurted out the title and Harold looked at me wide-eyed as I explained it was the title of one of his poems.

He was not convinced. I had him locate a copy of the book so I could read the poem aloud. When I was done, Harold had tears in his eyes. “I’m hearing this poem for the first time,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We are unable to see ourselves,” he replied, “That’s why I write poetry–for the reflection that comes from the reader.” It was then I begin to appreciate what my friendship offered Harold beyond housecleaning and conversation.

To read a selection of Norse’s poems published in Poetry magazine, click here.

*****

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Harold Norse and Todd Swindell, 2008 (Photo by Tate Swindell)

 

Allen Ginsberg’s Best Bad Day

In the spring of 1949, when the poet Allen Ginsberg was twenty-two, he came very close to becoming a common thief.

He was living at 1401 York Avenue in New York’s Lenox Hill neighborhood on the Upper East Side. His favorite low-life friend, Herbert Huncke, had arrived penniless, sick, and near starvation one cold February night. Huncke, a mesmerizing storyteller as well as a thief and heroin addict, fascinated Ginsberg. He took him in.

When Huncke recovered, he invited a strikingly tall, red-haired woman who went by the alias Vickie Russell and her diminutive boyfriend, Little Jack Melody,  to stay at Allen’s place. Little Jack and Vickie were burglars who knew a good opportunity when they saw one. Before long, they had filled Ginsberg’s apartment with contraband, including high-quality furniture and a cumbersome cigarette machine.

Ginsberg realized what was going on but felt powerless to stop it. Not quite done with his Columbia degree and working nights as a copy boy for the Associated Press, he lacked the courage needed to kick out his three unsavory roommates. Huncke, Little Jack, and Vickie all talked enthusiastically about art and culture, and that made it harder to see them as criminals.

The voyeur in Allen, moreover, was curious about what they did. One night he rode along with Vickie and Jack in midtown Manhattan where they were looking for cars to break into. Ginsberg waited behind as a lookout and joked that he wasn’t ready to lose his “cherry” in this business of crime. But for all practical purposes, his cherry was long gone: he had no intention of reporting his pals to the police, and the stolen furniture had improved his standard of living.

It was a worrisome time. “The household set up which I both hate and desire, that I have, is an example of my uncertainty of path and dividedness,” Ginsberg wrote to Neal Cassady. “Perhaps I shall find that I have been self destructively greedy on this score.” Still, he did nothing.

Then an alarm sounded. Ginsberg’s friend William Burroughs was arrested on drug charges. Ginsberg feared that the police would read the incriminating letters they had exchanged, show up at the apartment full of loot, and arrest him. It was time to move away and make a fresh start. In preparation, he packed up all of his personal papers, which he intended to store at his brother Eugene’s place.

On the morning of April 22, 1949, Little Jack and Vickie, no doubt delighted that Allen was moving out and leaving the apartment to them, agreed to give him a ride to his brother’s. There were to be two stops beforehand: first a visit with Little Jack’s mother and then a business meeting with a fence presumably interested in the stolen goods filling up Little Jack’s car (also stolen).

After a happy visit with Mama Melody, things rapidly fell apart. Little Jack made a wrong turn and found himself headed the wrong way on a one-way street in Queens. A cop appeared and shook his head sternly. The gesture may have only meant that Jack needed to turn around, but given the circumstances, and the fact that he was on parole, he panicked and roared past the startled officer.

A car chase ensued, and with Ginsberg feeling quite rightly that doom was upon him, the car flipped and the papers he had wanted to keep private were scattered everywhere. The dazed driver and passengers emerged from the car. Vickie and Allen ran away.

By the time they got back to York Avenue, Huncke was on alert, but there was no time to prevent the inevitable. The police showed up close on the heels of Allen and Vickie and arrested both of them along with Huncke. Though Huncke hadn’t been along for the disastrous ride, he was wanted on other charges.

In the end, Little Jack and Vickie spent very little time in jail, thanks to their families’ aid and influence. With no one vouching for his character, Huncke was sent upstate to Sing Sing prison for five years. Ginsberg’s father, brother, and Columbia professors sprang into action to protect him. Instead of prison, he was consigned to a mental institution for the better part of a year.

It was there, at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, that Ginsberg met a fellow patient named Carl Solomon, who would figure prominently in “Howl.” Solomon was just one key ingredient in the poem’s making, however. Ginsberg’s downward-spiraling life among thieves, Huncke prominent among them, gave him crucial material as well as the mindset he needed to write the Beat Generation’s defining poem.

That April day in 1949 was surely the worst of Ginsberg’s life up to that point. Yet he transformed it, in retrospect, into one of his best days. For Allen Ginsberg, going the wrong way was the right way to poetic inspiration and literary achievement.

Read more about Ginsberg’s relationship with Huncke in my book, Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation (Schaffner Press).

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg

Essential Kerouac: Birthday Edition

It’s Jack Kerouac’s 93rd birthday. Let’s celebrate by returning to the thirty numbered “essentials” in his “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” subtitled “List of Essentials.” Here are four to ponder:

4. Be in love with yr life

Being in love with your own life means it’s new and fresh and alluring; it’s full of surprises. You want to take your life out for an expensive dinner and wind up in bed with it that night. Wow!—as Sal Paradise would say—that’s a great life.

19. Accept loss forever

Only Kerouac the Catholic Buddhist could come up with this. What does it mean? Tonight, when you’re out on a hot date with yr life, whisper this line across your wine glass and see where the conversation goes.

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

The snows of February brought this one home to me. After we came out of our caves and shoveled paths to the road, I looked with amazement at friends and strangers alike. How animated their smiles, how bright their eyes! I hardly listened to what anyone had to say, I was so struck by the beauty of each human face.

29. You’re a Genius all the time

How did Kerouac know that about you and me? He just did. Thanks, Jack! And happy birthday to you, out there, up there, down there, in the hearts of all who love you.

Jack Kerouac’s Charisma

When I think of the authors I’ve taught who have truly fascinated students, Jack Kerouac’s name is high on the list. No matter how much they learn about Kerouac’s problems and sometimes boorish behavior, most of them still love him at the end of the semester. They’re responding not just to his writing or his life story but to the whole package. Call it charisma. What accounts for it in Kerouac?

He has a great name. He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, and that is a wonderful banner of a name. When he published The Town in the City in 1950, he called himself John Kerouac–a serious name. By the time On the Road came out in 1957, he was Jack Kerouac and that’s what stuck. Jazzy and fun to say, it’s a little poem that dances on the tongue. Jack Kerouac!

He is photogenic. The pictures of him in his prime are dazzling. No matter whether he’s dressed in plaid shirt and chinos or suit and tie, Kerouac is a knockout. His strong jawline, tousled dark hair, and smoldering gaze appeal to both men and women. His French Canadian heritage bangs against the all-American bravado. Once you’ve seen that sleek, stubborn face, you won’t forget it.

His voice is distinctive. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Lowell accent is smoky and rough-edged. By the time Kerouac was giving readings and interviews, he had traveled a lot and his accent seems to have faded. Recordings give us a wonderfully resonant voice, both light and deep, seasoned with the salt of Lowell.

He’s the king of sentences. Open up any book by Kerouac, close your eyes, and let your finger drop on a sentence. Read it aloud. It will give you a jolt and maybe a lift. Kerouac’s true gift as a writer is at the sentence level. It’s those musical sentences, not characters or plot or symbolism or anything else, that keep drawing in new generations of readers.

He’s all about possibility. Call him selfish, call him obsessive, Kerouac did exactly what he wanted to with his life. His many books are a brilliant legacy but also a challenge. You want to write or paint or learn to play the didgeridoo? Well, who’s stopping you?

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac